As he met recently with U.S. Marines at several locations across the sprawling Al Anbar province, Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis explained what he termed “wave tactics” to combat the Sunni Arab insurgency in its longtime stronghold.
Mattis, who led Marines against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and insurgents in Fallouja in April 2004, is urging his troops to show respect to ordinary Iraqis and exercise restraint in the use of deadly force to prevent civilian deaths and injury.
The Marine Corps has even asked a consultant about the best way to wave. Answer: Make eye contact, don’t just wave mechanically like a beauty queen on a float.
For Mattis and the Marine Corps, the message is not new. As he led Marines into Iraq in 2003, the general sometimes called “Mad Dog” ordered his troops to be aggressive in fighting Iraqi forces but to show “soldierly compassion” toward civilians and prisoners.
And last week, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, sent a message to troops not to let their frustration or anger override their training and judgment. His message followed a Pentagon survey that showed only 55% of soldiers and 40% of Marines would report a colleague for abusing civilians.
At this smuggling and farming village on the Syrian border, Mattis told Marines to be prepared to make eye contact and wave even if just moments earlier a Marine has been injured or killed by the roadside bombs and snipers that remain a daily threat.
Whenever you show anger or disgust toward civilians, it’s a victory for Al Qaeda and other insurgents, Mattis told Marines in a makeshift chow hall at Camp Gannon, named for a Marine officer killed in a 2004 firefight.
U.S. doctrine holds that the key to waging a counter-insurgency is winning the populace away from the insurgents. Mattis and other Marine leaders are concerned that civilian casualties or even a harsh attitude toward civilians by the U.S. could help the insurgency, which appears to have been losing support in Al Anbar.
“They want us to become racist and to hate every Iraqi,” Mattis said. “You’re going to be tested, and there are going to be some tough times.”
In Ramadi, where fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents has left the provincial capital a shambles, Mattis had sharpened his punch line.
“Every time you wave at an Iraqi civilian, Al Qaeda rolls over in its grave,” he told Marines.
And in Habbaniya, a town between Fallouja and Ramadi, Mattis spoke of maintaining an “ethical and moral balance” even amid a confusing battleground in which insurgents hide behind women and children.
In Al Anbar province, the call for restraint has taken on added significance. Mattis and other Marine leaders are convinced that civilians in the province are turning away from the group Al Qaeda in Iraq and other foreign Islamic militants.
“We’re winning, but it’s one block at a time,” Mattis said. “We’re defined by those who keep their cool.”
As Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the Marine Forces Central Command, was talking to troops, hearings began at Camp Pendleton in a case in which Marines are accused of wantonly killing 24 civilians in Haditha. There may also be criminal charges against Marines for killing civilians in Afghanistan.
In his talks to the Marines, Mattis was quick to emphasize that nothing in his call for restraint toward civilians should be seen as limiting an aggressive response toward insurgents.
“Kill the right people and protect everybody else, protect, protect, protect,” he said in Haditha.
If there is a seeming contradiction between the two parts of his message, it’s one that Mattis believes Marines have to master.
“If you can’t ride two horses” at the same time, Mattis told Marines at Al Asad, “you have to get out of the circus in this part of the world.”